Although not quite finished with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I found myself agreeing with certain aspects of Dale Van Kley’s review in Books & Culture. I wouldn’t go as far as Van Kley, calling Gregory’s work “an unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics,” but he’s surely right that Gregory’s work is a book that “begs for a debate.” And this is what makes it so darn interesting.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to Van Kley’s hesitations. It does seem that Gregory at times tends to paint a picture of a monolithic Catholicism standing over and against an ever-fragmenting Protestantism; the latter of course is true, but the former? What Gregory misses, as this is one of Van Kley’s key objections, is that Catholicism before and during the Reformation was hardly a seamless unit. Van Kley notes a few instances: the De Auxilis controversy, the controversies surrounding the Jansenist movement and, of course, the conciliar movement, which only gets a slight head nod. The counter-Reformation period of Suarez and the rise of “pure nature” are dutifully noted in the first chapter, but so far I haven’t seen Gregory tie this damaging brand of baroque scholasticism into his tale (though, still working through the book). The problem here, according to Van Kley, is that Gregory tends at times to make Protestantism “bear the onus of the schism.”

Similar to neglecting key components of the conciliar movement, Gregory leaves out the key role that the Anglican church played in the Reformation. He seems to oscillate between regarding the Anglican reformers as mere Erastians on the one hand or utterly in thrall to the continental Reformers on the other, neither of which is quite accurate. In actual fact, the Anglican reformers rejected the late medieval papal structure at the expense of Episcopal authority, not the Catholic faith as such, as some of the continental Reformers had done. “I die,” writes Thomas Ken, “in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolick Faith, professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West.”[1] I wonder how Gregory’s thesis might be nuanced by giving more careful attention to the Reformation as it uniquely unfolded within England.

To be clear, none of my hesitations, notwithstanding Van Kley’s review, blunt the force of Gregory’s overall thesis or my appreciation for the book. We are in a fragmented mess, with little or no hope of realizing a common good beyond the assertion of will and a politics of power rather than the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The Reformation period and not just the Reformers, continue to leave us in a big mess. Seen in this light, Van Kley’s appeal to Gregory is entirely appropriate and bears much thought: “In lieu of either sola scriptura or papal infallibility, a Catholic Church restructured along conciliar lines would make for an ideal forum, not only for healing the still open wounds of a divided Christendom, but also for articulating a ‘common good’ for the present age, the ills and ailments of which this book so eloquently describes.”


[1] Quoted in Moorman, A History of the Church in England, 234.

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